With the wood and cement rubble that used to be her home crunching beneath her, Maayan Milchan ’21 sifted through shards of shattered pottery and other memorabilia, attempting to piece together the charred remnants of her childhood home.
“The first time going back there, a part of it [was] surreal,” Milchan said. “The things that I wish we could get [back] the most are the weird things that would not seem meaningful in a monetary or material way, but they are just tied to the emotions and memories of childhood, like weird little drawings.”
Milchan’s house was just one of the over 670 structures, including more than 400 single-family homes, inside the Malibu city limits that were destroyed by the Woolsey fire, according to NBC Los Angeles, whose estimates are based on aerial imagery and property records.
The fire started Nov. 9 in Simi Valley as a result of low humidity and gusty winds, and it rapidly swept through Los Angeles and Ventura County, devastating 96,946 acres of land, according to data from California Department for Forestry and Fire Protection. This fire comes almost a year after the Dec. 2017 Thomas and Skirball Fires that destroyed 273,400 acres of land and 422 acres of land respectively, according to NBC News.
Upon hearing the news of the fire’s outbreak and it’s threatening proximity to their area, Milchan’s family was unable to return to their home one last time to gather any irreplaceable belongings. It was through aerial footage that she first found out her home had been destroyed.
“It started to become more and more clear [when] we saw overhead camera footage of our neighborhood, and we were able to zoom in and see that our house was not there,” Milchan said. “It was kind of difficult because you think you are gonna feel one way, but it has not fully set in yet. It is just still a bit of a fog.”
When she arrived home from school, Sophia Nuñez ’20 found herself ushered into her Agoura Hills neighborhood by dense clouds of smoke. Nuñez was one of many displaced by the Woolsey Fires, as over 75,000 residents were evacuated according to the Los Angeles County residents reported by California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
“It was hard to breathe, and you are holding your jacket over your mouth so you do not inhale smoke,” Nuñez said. “Everything matters so much more than you think it does in a time of peril, so it was a lot to have to process all of that all at once.”
Nuñez said that she felt lucky the fires did not reach her house. Her neighbors’ houses two blocks down and the park she played at as a child were leveled.
“It was a very close, very scary time, but I am very fortunate to still have my house and that our community is working hard to rebuild what has been lost,” Nuñez said.
For Milchan, the overwhelming support from family, friends and school she has experienced has made the massive loss of her home easier to cope with.
Though the Thomas, Skirball and Woolsey fires hit close to home for many members of the Harvard-Westlake community, the reliance of California’s Chaparral environment on wildfires to spur growth is not a new phenomenon, regional ecologist and researcher at the UC Davis Department of Environmental Science and Policy Hugh Safford said. However, climate change has increased the need for focus on the effects of these natural disasters.
“The warming climate is complicating things by increasing the length of the fire season, drying fuels more and making for hot weather that is auspicious for hot fires,” Safford said. “People who did not border the wildlands and thought they had nothing to fear are realizing they are vulnerable,” Safford said.
Professor of Global Environmental Health, School of Public Health at UC Berkeley, Kirk Smith, said that although individuals can take precautions to prepare for fires, addressing the underlying issues behind the magnitude of destruction that has recently been reached is difficult and expensive.
“The scale, time of year and the link to climate change seem to be moving us to a new normal,” Smith said. “But the issues of population density, zoning, insurance and climate are not easily handled. It could be said that a basic issue is lack of political courage to impose zoning and insurance restrictions so that wildfires can be allowed to burn.”
Students who were relocated found support in the school community. Coco Kaleel ’20 offered her top bunk to Nuñez, who would not have easily been able to travel to school from where her family had temporarily relocated to escape the blaze. Kaleel said that she feels that the reality of fires have become normalized in California’s culture because of how often they occur.
“It is crazy that when someone texts on a group chat ‘guys I’m getting evacuated’ and people ask ‘what’s the containment percent?’ ‘mandatory [evacuation] or voluntary [evacuation]?’,” Kaleel said. “It is scary that we have the slang to describe life threatening situations because they are normal.”
Central and Southern California Region Lead Research Ecologist Jon Keeley said the increase in the magnitude of damage can be directly correlated to rapid population growth and construction of communities in areas susceptible to burning. This drastic increase in the observable impact of wildfires has pushed both fear and awareness of them to the forefront of Californians’ conscience.
“We have just put more and more people into Southern California, and now more people are put at risk,” Keeley said. “Since these fires are almost all started by people either directly or through infrastructure, such as power lines, more people on the landscape means more opportunity for fires to start under severe wind events.”
Keeley said that there is an observable urgency among Californians that has pushed them towards taking preventative action regarding many natural disasters, such as earthquakes and flooding. However, despite a heightened awareness in recent years, there is less of a movement towards preparing against the equally inevitable destruction of fires.
Amy Kronenberg ’20 housed her grandmother, aunt and cousins who had been evacuated from their homes in Calabasas for four nights. Although the fire affected her more personally this year, she said her family has not actually taken precautions to prepare for future disasters.
“Every time a fire happens, my mom always talks about how we have to get more water and canned food, but we do not actually do it,” Kronenberg said. “The news always has segments on what to do to prepare for disasters. I think that reminds my mom, but when everything is over, everyone forgets that the natural disasters happened.”
County Director and Forest Advisor for the University of California, Yana Valachovic, said that while individuals cannot control the affect climate change has on the intensity of fires, actions can still be taken to protect lives and homes against fires. She said that small things such as cleaning and maintaining one’s rooftops and air vents can be very helpful.
“The media has really portrayed this as an entirely climate driven event and that is somewhat defeatist,” Valachovic said. “Similar to how we manage earthquakes and hurricanes, we [can] adapt to them. We have to figure out how to become a much more resilient California both in our ecosystems and our human communities.”
Jack French ’20 was asleep at home when police deputies drove around his neighborhood announcing an immediate evacuation. French was only able to prioritize his family’s safety once he and a neighbor made sure that the elderly on his street were placed out of reach from the threat of embers.
“We were supposed to get a robotic call three hours earlier, but we did not,” French said. “The police were saying ‘Get out now.’ I am slightly asthmatic and we did not have any inhaler. At some points there was legitimately ash falling.”
For French, it was the complete burning of two houses, a park and a hill in his neighborhood that encouraged his family to purchase industrial strength gas masks for future defense against the smoke that threatens French’s ability to breathe. Unlike the intentions of many residents to take precautions that go unfulfilled, French feels his family’s immediate response was driven by how directly affected he was by the fires.
“If you are more affected by the fire you are more likely to take action,” French said. “We got the masks because of the effect of the smoke on our family, which is worse for me and my grandparents [who have lung damage]. It caused a lot of very bad, dry coughs.”
President Rick Commons said that the school has constantly been taking measures to make the school as safe as possible and provide the most supportive environment for community members affected by this and last year’s fires.
“We have emergency response systems that are being refined every time we encounter something with regard to communication with parents and families,” Commons said. “We are lucky that it has not touched the school campuses, but it has certainly touched the school community.”
Nuñez said that although education and precautions can help people be ready for the inevitability of fires in our environment, nothing can prepare them for the emotional affects of such monumental loss.
While the drastic increase in the magnitude and frequency of devastating wildfires has heightened a sense of awareness in our community, there has been a simultaneous tendency to surrender to their inevitability Valachovic said. However, the constant communal support and encouragement of individuals to address the underlying issues with precautionary actions should equip Californians with the ability to coexist with such a necessary natural phenomenon.